Dallas Cowboys’ plan is to build through draft, not free agency

Dallas Cowboys vice-president Stephen Jones isn’t bothered by the team’s slow start in free agency. He said it’s part of the plan to be patient and frugal.
Dallas Cowboys vice-president Stephen Jones isn’t bothered by the team’s slow start in free agency. He said it’s part of the plan to be patient and frugal. Star-Telegram

Executive vice president Stephen Jones understands the frustration with the lack of free-agent moves by the Dallas Cowboys after last year’s 4-12 campaign.

But he is not worried, and he says Cowboys fans shouldn’t be either.

Jones said the Cowboys are focused on bettering their team for a bounce-back run next season and aren’t solely relying on the return to health of quarterback Tony Romo, receiver Dez Bryant and cornerback Orlando Scandrick, whose injuries were huge part of their problems last season.

But Jones said the Cowboys will use the upcoming NFL Draft as the foundation of their improvement and not free agency.

“I think we have been on record as saying I don’t think that’s where you build a football team in free agency,” Jones said. “At the same time, we are certainly not sticking our head in the sand just because we had significant injuries with Tony and Dez and Orlando and think just because they are healthy and we are going to be fine.

“The big thing as [owner] Jerry (Jones) so eloquently said, ‘we earned the fourth pick in the draft and the third pick in the second round and the fourth pick in the third round.’ You build your team in the draft. So we’ve got to draft well.”

Jones also pointed out that free agency is not over. The Cowboys are hosting two free agent visitors on Monday in running back Alfred Morris and cornerback Patrick Robinson. They are also waiting to see if the Oakland Raiders are going to match the offer sheet they signed with defensive end Benson Mayowa.

Jones said the Cowboys have no regrets about previous free-agent misses on targets such as cornerbacks Nolan Carroll and Leon Hall, defensive ends Adrian Clayborne and Chris Long and safety Eric Weddle.

“Free agency is not over yet,” Jones said. “We just have a strategy. Our strategy is we are going to pay a guy ‘X.’ If it goes above that, then we are out. That’s how you make bad mistakes, paying to the market.”

Consider it a lesson learned in 2012 when the Cowboys gave cornerback Brandon Carr a five-year, $50.1 million contract even though he had never been a Pro Bowl player during his first four years with the Kansas Chiefs.

Carr has been solid player with the Cowboys, but he has not lived up to the contract as a playmaker. He has no interceptions since 2013 and could be a salary-cap casualty if the team signs Robinson.

Jones also bristled at the notion that the Cowboys were worried more about balancing the budget than improving the team.

“It’s not about the budget,” Jones said. “It’s about getting a player to equate to the dollar. It’s not about the budget. The budget is a bad word for this. It’s the value. We stick with the value of the player. It’s not about the budget.”

Jones stopped short of saying the Cowboys will never again be a team that makes a big splash in free agency — just in case a Reggie White or Deion Sanders come available. But he says there are not a lot of Pro Bowl players in free agency and reiterates that is not the Cowboys’ philosophy.

“We are not ever going be a big-splash free agency team,” Jones said. “We don’t think that’s a sound strategy, unless there is a Reggie White or Deion. There are not many of them. It’s not that we don’t want to spend money — not it if it’s a Pro Bowl-caliber player. We just think we aren’t seeing Pro Bowl caliber players out there.

“We are going to do the best job we can and get players in free agency, but we think there is a value and efficiency in what we are trying to get accomplished. We think the biggest thing that is going to improve our football team is the draft.”

Jones said the Cowboys would prefer to sign their own players to big contracts.

He believes the Cowboys have drafted well and have future decisions to make on long-term extensions for center Travis Frederick, guard Zack Martin and defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence among others.

He would rather have money to keep those players as long-term foundational pieces rather than go after high-priced free agents.

“You can’t keep Zack Martin on the football team if you sellout now,” Jones said. “That’s not a solid move for the long haul. You have so many resources. The good news is we have drafted well and we have good players. We know we have to keep DeMarcus Lawrence. We have to keep Zack Martin. If we go out and pay guys more, then we can’t pay those guys. And that’s who you really want to pay.”

The Cowboys already have one such decision to make with Frederick as they have until May 3 to pick up the fifth-year option on his contract for 2017, worth $6.87 million.

Clarence Hill: 817-390-7760, @clarencehilljr

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